Scott McCloud’s “The Sculptor” is a graphic novel about one man’s quest to be a successful artist but, more broadly, it’s about defining and finding meaning in life.
The event that sets the plot of “The Sculptor” in motion is David Smith’s magically binding bargain with Death. In his desperation and worldly ambition, David is like Faust, and the deal he makes offers similarly transient worldly power for a high price. As in the traditional version of the story, the contract is fulfilled to the letter, and things don’t work out exactly as planned. However, McCloud makes two major deviations from the Faust story template.
Death, clothed in the shape of David’s Uncle Harry, roots for him rather than acts as an antagonist. If anything, he seems to want David to succeed and get what he bargained for. McCloud never explains why Death bestows deals or favors, though, and this weakens the metaphysics of the story.
Secondly, and to more profound effect, David’s deal does not signify the corruption of his soul, nor does McCloud ever indicate that David suffers from the sin of hubris. As a point-of-view character, David is always relatable, if not always likable. He’s proud, quick-tempered, grumpy, impatient and often selfish, but he never intentionally hurts or uses others. His essential decency and strict moral code is crucial to the direction of the plot, because the deal he makes could easily be evil if he was willing to use others as he uses himself in service of Art.
Those who play with Fate usually meet a bad end but, in “The Sculptor,” David isn’t penalized for his choice, nor does he try to escape the terms of the contract. Instead, the story arc is unpredictable and enjoyably complex as David grows artistically and spiritually over his 200 days.
McCloud avoids the obvious pitfall of David’s plan — leaving behind loved ones — with an eleventh hour plot twist. It’s a hard-to-swallow coincidence and it is clearly there to give the love story a clean ending, allowing David a triumph rather than a regret.
“The Sculptor” is not a cautionary tale about wanting too much, too fast. Instead, it’s another classic story, the one where the narrator is given an external reason to feel that every moment is precious, but what is different about David’s story is that his shorter life and subsequent enlightenment come from his own decision rather than from disease or old age.
McCloud’s plotting is very tight and, once the reader opens “The Sculptor,” it’s hard to put down. Some pages are packed with dialogue and text, while others are controlled by the artwork. McCloud varies the pacing according to the flow of the narrative, and the rhythm and interplay of words and pictures work well, carrying the reader along like waves.
The suspense is built-in because of David’s ticking clock and whether he can achieve what he dreams by the deadline. At the end of “The Sculptor,” there’s a standoff with the police around a skyscraper that feels right out of the movies. These moments are gripping but feel contrived upon rereading or reflection. The truest, most authentic parts of “The Sculptor” are in the smaller, more humdrum details.
In snippets of memories, McCloud shows David’s life from childhood up the present in only three pages, an amazing feat of compression. David’s loss of his whole family, one by one, is wrenching to experience due to McCloud’s skill with faces. The scenes of David’s frustrations with money and the fame-driven art world as well as his alienation in the city are similarly affecting, with David wandering in a cacophony of dialogue balloons. McCloud’s skills with facial expressions and timing also shine in moments of humor and delight, like the busts of Meg lined up across a bookshelf or in David’s reunion with Ollie. These moments add up to a life more than any grand twists of fate. “The Sculptor” says nothing definite about love, ambition or sacrifice, but it is a story of exceptional depth and feeling because of its success in the way it navigates the tension between taking control and letting go, suffering and joy.